As he cups the small fruit in his hand, José informs me that it’s a guayaba. “It tastes good,” says the eight-year-old. “Is it tart?” I ask, faintly recalling that guayaba means “guava” in Spanish. He shakes his head yes. I’m pleased that he not only likes the fruit, but that he takes such pride in knowing about it.
José and his four-year-old friend Emily are hanging out at Mudtown Farms in Watts, where the children's grandparents are tending their plots in the community garden. This 2.5-acre parcel is across the street from the notorious Jordan Downs housing project—one of the flashpoints of the Watts riots and home to the Crips in South L.A. It's a gray, drizzly Saturday, and I'm touring the farm with my Food Bloggers Los Angeles group.
The farm was started after the riots in 1965, and today about 12 to 15 farmers pay $8 a month to grow things like cilantro, lettuce, chard and corn. I'd been to Watts a couple of times before—to see the famous Watts Towers, only a few blocks from here—and to go to the Central Avenue Jazz Festival. Central Avenue is a street steeped in history where some of the most celebrated jazz musicians in the 20's-50's played, from Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. But today, Watts is not exactly known for being a thriving artists' enclave.
In addition to the gangs and drug lords, the area is ruled by corporate fast-food pushers, out to get the 'hood hopped up on Happy Meals. With only one major grocery store in a wide area, fresh and nutritious is hard to come by. But you can get a quick fix from a 99-cent burger on any street. It's class warfare between the bottom liners in their corner offices and the bottom dwellers on every corner. The convenience-food and big-agro oligarchs with their processed and genetically modified agendas are pulling the nutritional strings, so it's no wonder this socioeconomic class has such elevated rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. In a bold move two years ago, the city put a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles. That was a start, but there are still few alternatives to healthy eating in these parts. When you've been a junk-food junkie your whole life, how do you come clean?
Enter the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), a service and development organization who bought the land in 2005. The group has teamed up with architect Michael Pinto (above), a Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) professor and founder of Project Food LA. WLCAC and Pinto want to turn the under-utilized farm into a center for education and food sustainability, providing the residents with resources and access to healthy, locally grown food.
Pinto posed the possibilities as a project for his students, and they came up with a myriad of ideas, some of which are being seriously considered. WLCAC would like a professional farmer to oversee the land, and some of the options are to have an on-site kitchen with a chef offering cooking programs, a community-supported agriculture program, a seed library, as well as other avenues of education and support. Whatever they eventually decide on will hopefully bring healthier eating and more independence to the community.
It's hard for me to imagine a diet without fresh fruits and vegetables, but that's the grim reality for some. It's why we need to take matters into our own gardens and our own hands. They say real change starts from the ground up. I hope Mudtown Farms proves them right. Kids like José and Emily deserve a break today. But not at McDonald's.